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In Germany, Pursuit of Plagiarism Now Extends to Lawmakers Lifting Words from Lobbyists

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, February 12 2013

In Germany, online activists have made headlines over the past two years with online platforms dedicated to combing through the dissertations of prominent politicians for signs of plagiarism, leading to the resignations of the German defense minister, and just last week, the education minister.

Inspired by those efforts, German freelance journalist, TV moderator and blogger Richard Gutjahr worked together with Open Data City, a team of journalistic open data designers, to create LobbyPlag, a platform that examines similarities between proposals by lobbyists and amendments to the General Data Protection Regulation proposed by EU Committee members.

In an email to techPresident, Gutjahr explained that he first became aware of the issue through Max Schrems, an Austrian law student who has made headlines with his Europe v Facebook campaign protesting Facebook's data use policies. He had noticed EU draft laws that were exactly the same as texts sent to lawmakers by lobbyists for U.S. companies, obtained and released by anonymous activists or organizations like La Quadrature du Net. When more and more examples became evident, Gutjahr contacted Open Data City, based in Hamburg, to build a platform to track them.

"They led to the recognition that the power of many could accomplish something," Gutjahr wrote to me in German. "But rather than simply causing the downfall of a minister because he once copied something as a student, we wanted to use the power of crowdsourcing for something that has much greater meaning and also consequences for society," he wrote. "We're talking here about [a] package of laws that will affect the lives of over 500 million EU citizens over the next 10 to 15 years."

Guthar wrote that he was especially bothered by the "chutzpah" of how such documents are pre-formulated to fit the needs of parliamentarians.

"[E]ven font and font-size are matched to the later EU draft. Sometimes these drafts come directly as Word documents to make copying even more convenient," he wrote. "One paper actually included the heading 'voting instructions.'"

So far the platform is highlighting proposals from Amazon, eBay, and the American Chamber of Commerce, as well as a European association of Internet providers, the European Banking Federation, and the European IT industry. Highlighted measures would lower penalties for breaching the law, eliminate its enforcement by consumer organizations, make the position of a data protection officer optional, limit the right of citizens to request a copy of their personal data or allow a company to share a consumer's data with anyone who has a "legitimate interest," according to Lobbyplag.

Gutjahr called the current platform a beta version that was created, woodcut-like, from scratch. "We were pressed for time because some of the important committees are already meeting next week," he wrote. "Right now we still have to enter every document in by hand. At the moment [documents] still reach us through an e-mail address." But the team is working on ways to automatize the process, he added.

"We want to help with with the understanding of how laws come into being and whose hands all play into this important process," Gutjahr explained.

Citing the positive reaction so far, he said one could "sense how people are shocked at the extent of this 'copy & paste' legislative process."

While the days-old platform is currently only focusing on one law, the team behind the platform has now launched a campaign on the new German journalistic crowdfunding site Krautreporter to raise the money to expand the effort with imports from the EU transparency initiative ParlTrack, more crowdsourcing of analogies between lobby proposals and EU documents, a multilingual interface, social media integration and open source software.

"Our slogan could be: Lobbyplag -- you make the laws, we offer the footnotes. You're welcome," Gutjahr wrote.

In a blog post, EU analyst Jon Worth praised the platform but also warned against overreaction. The influence of lobbyists on EU legislators is not an unknown or new phenomenon, he noted. And companies have a just as legitimate interest to lobby EU legislators as NGOs, he added. "[A] simple copy-paste is more blatant, but as LobbyPlag shows, it makes influence easier to track than an amendment with the same purpose but different words." he wrote. "Tools like LobbyPlag, the Commission’s transparency register, and the work of organisations like Corporate Europe Observatory are vital – we need more transparency, not less. But conversely we should not wish corporate lobbyists did not exist, nor view their practice as scandalous. Not knowing what they are doing is the scandalous bit, and on that front today marks a small step forward."

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